Ricky Oliver sat quietly, hands in his lap, staring out the bus window. He was searching for a sign, the landmark that would signal just the right moment to pull the cord. - He could picture it in his mind: a concrete bridge stretching over the roadway, trees growing on both sides. If he forgot, all he had to do was look down. A laminated photo of the exact bridge dangled from a lanyard around his neck. - In the seat behind him, Monica Gonzalez stared at the back of his head. As the bridge came into view, she tensed. She didn't want to intervene unless absolutely necessary. - "Look at your landmark card," she finally said. "Is this it?" - Oliver looked down, looked back up and shook his head no. - "Do you need to pull the cord?" Gonzalez prodded. - Then, just as the bus zoomed beneath the bridge, he lifted his right arm, grabbed the cord and... -Ding-dong.- Another rider had gotten to it first. - Still, for day two of training, Oliver, a 35-year-old man with a mental disability, was doing well. Soon, he would be riding the bus all by himself.
Each year, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority teaches about 200 people how to ride the bus as part of its Travel Training Program. The free program is available to everyone, but is specifically aimed toward assisting disabled riders, senior citizens and students.
"Public transportation just opens the door to them to be able to live a productive life, to go to work, go to school and go to the doctor's," Gonzalez said.
Oliver can't drive and besides short walks, only leaves his Brandon apartment when one of his aides comes along. He operates on the level of a 12-year-old and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
"He is very high functioning," said Sherrise Lindo, Oliver's supported living coach from Miracles in Motion. "It's hard to depend on another person."
Learning to navigate the mass transit system could mean freedom - more trips to Walmart, doctor's appointments and his favorite destination: Busch Gardens.
"It's important for his independence, to get him out in his community and exploring more," Lindo said. "Our job is to kind of ween ourselves out of his life. The more we teach him and the more skills we can give him, the more we can take ourselves out of the picture."
That's where Gonzalez comes in. She has been training people how to use mass transit since September. Paid for through a federal grant, her position is one of two dedicated to training HART riders.
Each session starts with a look at routes. Gonzalez helps select the best series of buses to get to the client's preferred destination. But that doesn't always mean the shortest or quickest path.
In Oliver's case, Gonzalez tweaked the route to the nearby Westfield Brandon and Walmart after discovering he was having trouble crossing 10 lanes of traffic on State Road 60 near his first bus stop. The change meant more walking but made the trip safer, Gonzalez said.
"Ricky doesn't look like he has a disability," Gonzalez said. "People drive over the white lines at corners and don't stop to look for pedestrians."
Once a route is chosen, Gonzalez helps clients identify landmarks along their route so that they can pull the cord in time to request a stop. For clients such as Oliver, who may have trouble remembering, she creates a lanyard with photos taken from Google Maps. A list of times and bus numbers is on the opposite side.
Gonzalez typically spends five days training new clients. The first few days she leads. On the last day, if everything has gone as planned, she'll follow along in a car as the client maneuvers the bus system by themself.
Oliver must take four buses and spend an hour and a half to make it to his two destinations and back home - a ride that would take only 20 minutes in a car. And five days won't be enough time to train. He'll likely spend a couple of weeks in the program before he is allowed to ride by himself, if ever.
"It's not for everyone," Gonzalez said. "I would like to say everyone could complete the training but everyone can't."
About 80 percent of HART's travel training clients have disabilities, but others can still benefit.
Gonzalez and her training partner, Mark Sheppard, often organize day trips for senior citizen groups, teaching them how to plan their route, pay fares and get back home. A favorite destination is Ybor City and a chance to learn how to ride the TECO Line Streetcar. Students learning how to get to an after-school job or a new charter school are often on the client list, as well.
While riding the bus is easy, it's the steps before and after that Gonzalez says are the most important.
"I can teach someone to take the correct bus and when to pull the stop cord," Gonzalez said, "but when they get off the bus they are responsible for their own person. This is not a game, they have to have respect for the cars and traffic and the whole thing."
By the end of Oliver's second day of training, things seem to be going smoothly. As the bus approached the last of four stops, Oliver reached up to pull the cord, without any prompting.
Sitting behind him, Gonzalez reached forward and held out her hand for a high five.
"You did it," she said. "I did it," he repeated.
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.
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About Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority:
In March, a total of 1,243,670 bus trips were taken. Those include regular and express bus routes, streetcar rides and HART Flex.